The New York Review of Science Fiction

Review of "The Atrocity Archive"

The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross

Originally published in Spectrum SF 7-9, 2001-2002

There is a subgenre of fantasy and science fiction, dominated by Tim Powers over the last decade, which we might refer to as "secret histories." The books often center around events in our own world, often historical events, and feature historical characters. But the books involve these characters in supernatural plots, and at times the actual historical events are explained by this supernatural story. In Powers's Expiration Date, Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini feature prominently, and some of the actions in their lives are explained in terms of supernatural events involving characters who capture and consume ghosts. Similarly, in Powers's most recent novel, Declare, events ranging from the defection of double agent Kim Philby to pivotal points in the Cold War are explained by the hidden supernatural conflict between superpowers. Picture, if you will, a John Le Carré novel in which the characters are involved with the search for Noah's Ark, the Soviets plant a djinn in Berlin, and the quick fall of the Soviet Union and of the Berlin Wall are due to events in this supernatural Cold War. The historical events and characters ground the stories, giving them a basis in reality that makes them believable while we read the stories, despite the strange events that intrude into them. In fact, this base reality, contrasted with the supernatural events that take place, creates a real sense of wonder.

Recently, other authors have ventured into the territory that Powers has dominated for so long. Alex Irvine's wonderful first novel, A Scattering of Jades, was one such effort involving Aztec gods, Aaron Burr, and others in a conspiracy in nineteenth-century America. Charles Stross's first novel, The Atrocity Archive, recently serialized in the fine British paperback sf magazine Spectrum SF, is another.

Stross has written numerous short stories over the last couple of years, and is probably best known for the near future stories set in a technology-rich, cyberpunky future, such as "Lobsters" and "Tourist." The Atrocity Archive is quite different from these stories, though it shares their hacker-wise mentality. The novel is set on an earth in which certain types of information theory can allow breakthroughs from other universes into our own. These arcane creatures can at times break through physically, but often reach through to take possession of humans in our universe. All of this is explained in a marvelous techno-jargon, which is a mixture of math, information theory, physics, and the language of H. P. Lovecraft. The major countries of the world all have secret services whose job it is to prevent anyone from discovering and publishing papers about the wrong types of information theory and to deal with any incursions that do happen. After all, a paper that revealed the forbidden information could result in an apocalypse.

The novel's main character is Bob Howard, a math and computer science type who was about to publish a paper on the forbidden topics and was therefore given the choice of either coming to work for the Laundry (the British secret service who are responsible for dealing with the supernatural) or being eliminated by that same service. (The Laundry has learned something in the years since they assassinated Turing before he could publish the Lovecraft/Turing theorem, thereby losing someone who could have been an important asset for them.) Howard is a basic geek who, as the novel starts, is spending most of his time in computer administration and in dealing with the Laundry's bureaucracy.

As the novel progresses, Howard is flung into field work, first rescuing Mo, an American mathematician, whom Middle Eastern terrorists are bent on using in creating an inter-dimensional incursion, then helping to uncover what appears to be a plot by the remnants of the Nazi Ahnenerbe-SS, the German organization that, at the end of World War II, almost succeeded in launching a major supernatural assault that could have won the war. The Ahnenerbe-SS had been essentially wiped out by the Allies, who had agreed to completely eliminate them and to limit their own use of supernatural weapons. (Even Stalin had seen the danger, both in using the weapons and in what they would cost to use, which could include human sacrifice on a grotesquely grand scale.) The novel does a fine job of balancing humor with moments of real horror. Stross's view of the British bureaucracy is unlike anything in Powers, and there are also some fine moments with Howard's roommates, Pinky and Brains, as well as a number of amusing insider computer jokes. At the same time, the unfolding history, dealing with the Holocaust and its relationship to the Nazi attempt to unleash a supernatural weapon of world conquest, is unsettling. The novel moves deftly from light and humorous to dark and disturbing.

Beneath the fantastic elements and beneath the humor is a realism that grounds the novel. This sense of reality is threefold. First, it comes from the use of real history; Stross, like Powers, uses historical events and characters. Second is Stross's use of the concepts and characters of computer science, which again connects his world to our own. Finally, we have what, at least on a surface level, is some degree of scientific explanation of what goes on — something that, in the end, makes the novel an interesting blend of sf & cosmic horror in the Lovecraftian tradition. Stross knows at least enough of the concepts of modern physics and astrophysics to give the novel a firm basis.

A key strength of the book is Stross's ability to merge the worlds of the technology geeks and that of Lovecraftian horror, seasoned with splashes of hard sf, Powersian secret history, and The X-Files. Stross, a computer geek and a writer of computer books, has a deep understanding of both the equipment and the culture of the world of high technology. This is a world in which books on the occult aspects of computing sit on the bookshelf next to the (infamously unpublished) fourth volume of Knuth's classic series on algorithms. His characters speak and act like those in the high-tech world (if at times — as in the cases of Pinky and Brains — at the extreme end of that world) and know the jargon, the technology, and the props of that world.

Stross also understands the British bureaucracy, which, at its worst, is more entrenched, more bound by often-silly rules, and more humorous than its American counterpart — at least from the point of view of an outsider not trapped in it and being reprimanded for not filling out the appropriate paperwork before taking action to prevent a cataclysm. But Stross clearly knows this bureaucracy, and his ability to convey this knowledge again adds to the fundamental verisimilitude that helps us to suspend disbelief in the fantastic elements of the novel.

All of this is told at a pace that keeps you turning the pages. The characters are, if somewhat eccentric, also convincing. There will be a book version soon from Golden Gryphon, and I hope Stross expands it at least a bit. The novel, while quite good in its current form, would be even better with a few more details fleshed out. This is a fine debut novel by Stross.

— Jim Mann, The New York Review of Science Fiction, September 2003


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